Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Chronicles of Chaat: Adventures in Allahabad

Napkin Chatter brings to you the first chapter of the Chronicles of Chaat! In three parts explore some of the most lip-smacking chaat from the streets of Allahabad.

Chaat literally means to lick (at least that's what Rocky and Mayur say) That sound your tongue makes when you've had that tangy spicy chatpata chaat – the automatic twang in your mouth when tongue and roof palate meet. I cannot imagine a more appropriate name for this genre of food. It is a well established fact that every city or region has its own unique chaat culture. Allahabadi chaat is in deed quite different from the stuff that is offered in Delhi or Bombay.

This journey has been possible solely due to the kindness of the Mimani Family. They are native residents of the city and know the food scene better than anyone. Probably because the love for food runs in the family. Mrs. Mimani's culinary skills and delicious food has always been a gravitating force that pulls me towards Allahabad, however, this series will bring to you something else I was introduced to by her son, my friend and fellow gourmand Raghav - chaat from the streets of Allahabad.

The city is full of iconic street food. I have probably just begun to scratch the surface. There is a list of places I am yet to visit including the famous Nirala ki Chaat. That is for the future, for now – here is the present...

- Located in Colonel Ganj

- Located in Harsh Vardhan Crossing

- Located in  George Town/Tagore Town

Tamatar chaat @ Santosh Chaat Corner

When I heard about tamatar chaat I assumed it to be sliced tomatoes topped with sev and bhel with a squeeze of lime and dash of chaat masala. It is what is called 'tomato slice' by some chaat vendors down south. I was very wrong. Tamatar chaat in Allahabad (it is probably endemic to Uttar Pradesh, I have not seen it easily available in Delhi or Bombay) is on a different plane.

Santosh Chaat Corner is a mobile chaat station. He does phulkis, tikkis and the usual set of dishes. The main attraction though is the tamatar chaat. The first time I had it packed in a silver foil tray. I was intrigued by what looked like variation of bhaji in pav-bhaji. I scooped up a bit with the spoon, and examined it closely trying to identify what goes into making this, but the fragrance and visual appeal made me abandon my pursuit and focus on eating it. It was a celebration in my mouth. Perfect temperature, soft buttery texture and that twang only the yummiest of chaat can give.

This being an entirely new chaat dish my curiosity didn't die down, and to quell that the Mimani family helped me engage with the man behind the dish – Mr. Santosh. With the able aid of Mr. Bunty the all-in-all domestic help I went to meet the creator of a splendid dish.

Mr. Santosh 

Mr. Santosh was was having a very busy evening and offered to pack me all the chaat i wanted but if you want to see the making from scratch you need to come early evening. That is exactly what I did the next day. Bunty and I went to Santosh Chaat Corner, I was very excited at the prospect of discovering the recipe and secretly hoped to replicate the same in lands where none have had this yummy chaat!

Jeera and Onions

The process starts with cleaning the tawa. Its wiped clean of all residue from making tikkis and fresh oil is poured. A handfull of jeera is tossed into the oil and while it sizzles, a cup or two of chopped onions is added. This is cooked until it turns brown.

Chaat Brothers - Santosh and Satish

Then add roughly chopped tomatoes. Satish (Santosh's brother) does the tomato chopping and he is fast, he hacked through about five kilos of tomatoes in 10 minutes. Sauté all of it - let it sweat and cook on the tawa. Once the tomatoes begin to soften, bring out the mashers! Squish and squash them tomatoes. It'll transform into a red juicy pulp.

Half cooked tikkis are then added to the beautiful crimson pulpy gravy. Then repeat mash cycle. As it gets thick and unwieldy, the tangy pani of the phulkis is added. Jal-jeera is a good substitute adds Santosh. Mix and Mash away!

The next phase is when all the flavouring ingredients are added. The spicy green chili chutney, red chilli flakes, jeera powder, chaat masala, and a lot of other masalas you will have no idea about! Top it up with some chopped coriander. Add more of the pani to get the right consistency, and continue mashing while it cooks. 

Once you get a thick creamy buttery texture and the mix begins to ever so slightly stick to the tawa it is ready! Now there are two variations. So this mix is transferred to a small bowl, while 70% of the remaining mix is again treated with some sweet imli chutney, to make a sweeter version of the chaat. So when people order, the dish is tweaked according to demand.

If you are eating on site, he scoops up a portion of the chaat onto a disposable bowl, adds a seasoning of dahi, coriander, and crushed puris. Ready to eat! This time it was fresh off the tawa, and I found the chaat to be a bit too hot to be enjoyed. So keep this in mind, tamatar chaat is best had packed, after a few minutes of cooling. Now, do not let it cool too much, it becomes too thick and the dish loses its zesty life. That sweet spot of perfect temperature you have to discover yourself!

Mr. Bunty

Santosh and team were kind enough to share the recipe, probably with the sheer confidence that replicating this in any home is close to impossible. That however should be no reason for you to not try! Go ahead and experiment, create your own tamatar chaat, and if you succeed feed the ones craving for it, and if you fail, pack your bags and head to Allahabad.  

Fresh tamatar chaat

Shambu ki Chaat

Shiv Chaat Bhandaar a.k.a Shambu ki Chaat is immensely popular in Allahabad, the evening crowds make this fact apparent. Having devoured chaat made by Shambu I know the reason behind this popularity. Simply put, this place serves some of the best chaat I have ever had in my life, and I have had A LOT of chaat.

The super hits here are the phulkis and aloo tikkis. The dahi bhallas are great too. Lets get down to the details.

Mashed peas filling

The phulkis served here are filled with the usual mashed peas and paani. What makes the phulkis here stand out is the sheer freshness of the ingredients. The fresh, crisp puris are generously filled with the mashed matar and dunked into paani. 

phulki - warm crisp puri with cool and spicy pani

The blend of warm puri and matar with the cool and spicy pani crumbling and tumbling inside your mouth treating it to some of the most exciting flavours! Upon instructions from Madam Mimani, the matar filling was tweaked and spiced up a bit – and it went from 'awesome' to 'oh-my-god insanely awesome'. It is quite amazing how a pinch of certain masalas can change your entire experience.

Aloo Tikki

One might say that aloo tikkis are Shambu's hot favourite. He personally makes them, and its an experience in itself to watch him work. He picks up a pair of tikkis from the tawa just as they are ready, drops onto the green leaf-made serving plate. With a gentle push he flattens and ruptures the surface of the tikkis and begins the process of adding the various chutneys and masalas. It is hard to keep track, there is so much that is being added, and so quickly. 

Shambu creating his masterpiece 

He doesn't lift his head up, all the time singularly focussed on his creation. He adds the green mint chutney, a dash of various spicy masalas, a hint of sweet imli chutney, topped with some dahi, chopped coriander and fried shredded potato. I eagerly cut into the hot tikki and not wanting to burn my tongue blew into the steaming piece of tikki. Satisfied that it would not scald my tongue, I sent them to tikkis into the munching machine! 

While enjoying every molecule of the dish I realised that the seemingly random addition of masalas and chutneys are in fact not random at all. Each of those in specific quantities result in a precise flavour on your palate. Shambu is an expert declared my taste buds.

Dahi Bhalla

When you are all fired up from the fiery chaat, you must then take something to cool off. That is where the dahi bhallas come in. Bhallas are essentially small fluffy fried lentil nuggets soaked in a bit of water. The bhallas are then taken, the water squeezed out and then topped with dahi and a small sprinkling of chutneys and masalas! The dahi is mildy sweet, thick and creamy. Its a light and delicious snack that contrasts the heat of other chaat dishes.

Munna, Shambu's son. 

Shiv Chaat Bhandaar is an establishment that gets all of this perfect. I asked Shambu's son Munna, how do they do it? What is the magic? He laughed and gave me the answer that is common to all creators of lipsmackin' food – anything made with love and dedication works magic. If it were not for the amazing chaat, what would he be doing I asked him, “sarkari naukri” (government job) he said and burst out laughing. Though I am quite certain that no sarkari job can keep you away from the yummiest chaat in town!

The Holy Master of Chaat: Guruji

Every city has a legendary icon that must be remembered for all eternity. In the city of Allahabad, I think it is Guruji. THE master of chaat.

He learnt the trade from his father, and has been serving chaat for the lucky residents of Allahabad since 1945. Yes, you read that right, 1945! Even before India got its independence!


Guruji is special not just because he's probably the oldest living chaat vendor in this country, but because he serves a special three-course phulkis. Now, lets get some terminology clear. Phulkis is the term used in Allahabad for pani puris, and I will stick to that. As I discovered, phulkis are different from phuchkas, that is different from golgappas, that is different from pani puris! Napkin Chatter promises to do a full length feature of the national variants of tangy spicy pani filled in crisp tiny pooris!

Enough of lessons, back to the three course phulkis. First course, the puri is stuffed with seasoned matar or mashed peas (this is the regular filling for phulkis across Allahabad) and dipped into nice tangy spicy pani. The pani is at room temperature, not iced like it is in most parts of Delhi. Second course, the puri is stuffed with garam(warm) sagoda ka pani. If you're wondering what on earth is sagoda keep reading this post. Third course, the puri is stuffed with potato that is seasoned with green chilli and mint paste then topped with some sweet imli (tamarind) chutney before being dipped into the khatta (tangy) pani.

3 Course Phulkis

Guruji still serves each phulki to each customer himself. At the second course, he warns each of them “garam hai” (its hot, don’t burn your tongue!) The commitment and dedication shown to his craft is incredible.


Sagoda is a kind of pakoda in some insanely yummy gravy/pani. I am saying pakoda because it resembles one but it tasted far more flavourful than any deep-fried-gram-flour entity I have had! This is drenched in a tangy and spicy gravy of sorts. Its thicker than paani used for phulkis and thinner than a subzi gravy. Served in a khullad (clay cup), it is as appealing in appearance as it is in taste. My first taste of sagoda has found a special place on my 'memory palate' (à la Sherlock's memory palace!)

While we were chatting with him, he whipped up a serving of Khasta for us to sample. Its a variation of a kachori. Smaller and denser with more filling. He crushes a pair, tops it up with yummy chutneys, dahi and fresh boondi! Its nothing like I have ever had before, simply delicious.

The establishment is entirely family run. While on the face of it, apart from guruji only the son is seen making tikkis and dahi bhalla, right from peeling potatoes and making the various chutneys other members of the family are involved. In a way, you can sense that love and bonding in the near flawless flavours that are you are introduced to by Guruji. Come here by late afternoon, because by evening the cauldrons are nearly empty.

What makes this experience even more awesome is the ridiculously cheap prices at which Guruji serves these heavenly chaats. I asked him how does manage to price his chaat so cheap, and he said “it is what is it”. Though he laments that when he started out, he could serve 8 puris for one paise and now can only afford to serve 4 puris at Rs. 5. I still think its a fantastic deal, in the year, 2014, if you get chaat that tastes this good at Rs. 5 you are blessed.

I have been blessed by the Guruji. I'd recommend you set out on a chaat pilgrimage and pay your respects to the holy master.